An occupational therapist (OT) assistant is different from an OT aide. OTA is the abbreviation for the former, and it requires a degree. The aide does not need a degree to receive on-the-job training after graduating from high school. Your OTA program should have accreditation with the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE). ACOTE acts in conjunction with the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) to approve schools offering associate, masters, and doctoral programs.
The OT takes a holistic approach to the treatment of each client. This method differs from a physical therapist (PT) who works on the rehabilitation of a specific body part. For example, the PT assesses and prescribes exercises to improve strength and mobility of the shoulder following surgery on the joint. The OT examines all aspects of the client to help him or her resume daily activities during the rehabilitation period.
An OTA, as the name suggests, works in tandem with the OT. They follow the treatment regimen provided by the OT, which can lead to the OTA treating clients independently. OTAs work with clients in a variety of settings including hospitals, rehabilitation facilities, schools, employers, nursing homes, and private residences. Statistics show that about a third work in hospitals where they confer with doctors and nurses.
You need the minimum of an associate’s degree. The degree is an Associate of Science or Applied Science in OTA. In addition to the book-learning part of the curriculum, there are supervised fieldwork hours. Some schools offer online programs with campus locations to facilitate the hours of practical learning. One example is St. Catherine University, that has laboratory sites in several cities in California, Texas, and Virginia. This program consists of 12 labs or 720 hours of supervised fieldwork that you can take at their listed locations.
As you research schools offering an Associate degree in OTA, check with AOTA to make sure it is an accredited program.
Due to the hands-on nature of an OTA’s work, all associate’s degrees require field experience. Fieldwork may begin in the first semester with the requirement of a certain number of hours, for example, 3 to 6 hours per week. Including the fieldwork, there is a range in the credits hours for graduation. The hours can vary from 64 to 74. Regardless, you can complete most programs within 24 months or less.
The typical associate’s degree includes anatomy, physiology, and kinesiology. Other courses may entail psychology, performance, neuroscience, professional skills, human occupations, and rehabilitation management.
At the next level is a bachelor’s degree that some students use as a bridge to a Master’s degree in Occupational Therapy. There is no associate’s degree in OTA. There is a bachelor’s degree in occupational therapy or health sciences that can propel you into a graduate program. ACOTE does not accredit undergraduate programs – only master’s and doctoral degrees. One option is a combined baccalaureate and entry-level master’s degree. However, this path is for individuals who want their career to exceed an OTA. The completion of a master’s program suits those who aspire to practice as a state licensed OT.
Certification and Licensure
Graduates with an Associate’s in OTA have to sit for the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant (COTA) exam. Applicants must create an online account with NBCOT, which will verify eligibility. The cost is $515 to apply online and $555 by paper. The exam allows four hours to complete the 200 questions. The test is graded on a scale of 600 with 450 required to pass.
You have to pass the certification exam before applying for state licensure as an OTA. All 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico require a license. Each state has a State Board that oversees OT and OTA regulations. A list is available at this AOTA site. The organization is also a valuable source of information for students, including a student membership for $75 a year. There are also OT job postings at OTjoblink.org.
Where can your degree take you as an OTA? U.S. News reports in 2019 that the OTA ranks #22 in their category of Best Health Care Support Jobs. The publication bases this ranking system on the projected number of job openings. The data is from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics that expects 13,200 job changes from 2016 to 2026. As of 2016, there were 46,800 employed as Occupational Therapy Assistants and Aides with a median salary of $56,690.
The U.S. News report only references OT Assistants with an average salary of $59,310 and an unemployment rate of 6.9%. In comparison, they rank a Physical Therapy Assistant at #3 with a median wage of $57,430 and an unemployment rate of 2.5%. This group expects to add 27,400 jobs through 2026.